Review of Karl-Joseph Hummel and Michael Kißener, eds., Catholics and Third Reich: Controversies and Debates

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 3 (September 2019)

Review of Karl-Joseph Hummel and Michael Kißener, eds., Catholics and Third Reich: Controversies and Debates, translated by Christof Morrisey (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2018), 315 Pp., ISBN: 9783506787866.

By Kevin P. Spicer, Stonehill College

In the “Preface to English Edition,” the editors inform the reader that Catholics and Third Reich is a translation of the 2009 (paperback reprint 2010) Die Katholiken und das Dritte Reich: Kontroversen und Debatten, with minor corrections and additions of only essential bibliographical citations. The editors’ intention in the original German volume was to offer an update of the classic, Die Katholiken und das Dritte Reich, edited by Klaus Gotto and Konrad Repgen (both of whom passed in 2017), published initially in 1980 and revised for a third and final time in 1990. Hummel and Kißener dedicated their volume to Repgen, to commemorate his eighty-fifth birthday. The editors of both collections endeavored to historiographically contextualize the current themes and debates about the Catholic Church under Nationalism Socialism through chapters that are “easy-to-read yet still academically sound…for a broad reading public” (8). Evidently, German academics have a different understanding of the term “easy-to-read” than their English-speaking counterparts. For example, a translated sentence from Christoph Kösters’ contribution, “Catholics in the Third Reich: An Introduction to the Scholarship and Research History,” reads: “While the during the 1950s and early 1960s the participant generation’s view of history still predominated, at least on the surface, behind the scenes the institutionalization and networking of an emerging community of contemporary historians was taking place, wherein Catholicism studies would establish itself as a branch” (41). Of course, it is the role of a translator to produce a text that is clear and readable. Sadly, it is missing here. In several chapters, Christof Morrisey, the translator, followed – evidently too closely – the grammatical structure of the original’s dense academic German that results in awkwardly phrased English. In turn, this affects the text’s clarity and naturally the overall presentation of the authors’ arguments. Even the title is strangely framed, Catholics and Third Reich, neglecting the determiner “the.” “Preface to English edition” again forgets “the.” Such stylistic errors are minor but nevertheless make the reading of the volume challenging. To be fair, the latter chapters flow more evenly. More importantly, too, is the choice of Ferdinand Schöningh to have this volume translated into English in the first place, without requesting significant revisions from the contributors to reflect the historiographical developments in the field. The essays in Hummel and Kißener’s volume, for example, are often contentious and dominated by older interpretive debates. A better choice to fulfill the editors’ goal would have been the more accessible 2011 (revised second edition, 2018) volume, Die katholische Kirche im Dritten Reich: Eine Einführung (The Catholic Church in the Third Reich: An Introduction), edited by Christoph Kösters and Mark Edward Ruff and published by Herder, a competitor of Ferdinand Schöningh. In any case, the volume before us is the text under review.

Hummel and Kißener have divided their volume into four sections: Overview, Controversies and Debates, Images of History, and Bibliography, the latter including insightful maps of the voting behavior of the German Catholic population in Germany during the crucial years of 1932 and 1933. In the Overview section, Michael Kißener, University Professor for Contemporary History at the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz, introduces the volume by providing a historical chronological summary of German Catholics in Nazi Germany. According to Ki­ßener, two approaches may be taken to evaluate the choices of Catholics and the Catholic Church under Hitler. The first approach proposes making a judgment about the moral conduct or “guilt” of the Church under National Socialism, which he recognizes as legitimate, but ultimately not historically sound. Instead, Kißener favors an approach that focuses on “understanding” by analyzing the “causal factors” and establishing “theories of developmental process.” The latter, he believes, allows us “to understand the time…on its own terms, rather than to ‘condemn’” (14). Kißener points out that in 1933, Catholics in Germany represented only one-third of the population. The influence of their tradition ended in a “grey zone” of intersection between religion and politics in which the Church was overly cautious to intervene. As other contributors to this volume emphasize, Catholicism “did not require its believers to choose martyrdom” and therefore should not be compared to religious bodies such as the Jehovah Witnesses (15). At the same time, despite the hierarchical nature of Catholicism, the Catholic Church in Germany faced numerous obstacles preventing it from forming a unified approach toward the Nazi state. For example, the Freising and Fulda Bishops’ Conferences were only consolidated into one joint conference in 1933 and, as a result, had not yet perfected its operational rules. Resolutions made by the united conference were “not yet binding for individual bishops” (16). Kißener places significant responsibility for the lack of a more aggressive stance toward National Socialism on Adolf Bertram, Cardinal Archbishop of Breslau and leader of the Fulda Bishops’ Conference, who, he admits, too swiftly accommodated the National Socialists. Kißener describes Bertam’s Eingabenpolitik (policy of petition) as “legitimate,” but ultimately “anachronistic and futile” as the Nazis solidified their power over the government (23). Regarding the persecution of German Jews, especially during Reichskristallnacht, Kißener asks, “Did [the bishops] fear that standing up for the Jews in the existing situation would provoke more violence against them? Or did they believe they were unable to help because it was assumed that, after the Jews, the Catholics would be the next target of Nazi attacks?” (26) Kißener finds the bishops’ reaction or lack thereof “difficult to explain” but assures the reader that it was “not the product of any racially based anti-Semitism adapted by the Church” (27). Throughout his essay, Kißener has adopted a tone that is protective of the Church and its shortcomings in the years of Hitler’s rule. Regarding resistance, he quotes a historian equally defensive, Hans Maier, who wrote, “‘one has to look at it soberly: that a church as a whole would join the resistance is not very realistic’” (34).

In the second overview essay, Christoph Kösters, a research fellow at the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte in Bonn, tackles the monumental job of offering a summary of the decades of scholarship procured on the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany. More recently, Mark Edward Ruff dedicated an entire book to this topic in his authoritative study, The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany 1945-1960 (Cambridge, 2017), which Kösters does cite. Meanwhile, the editors have afforded Kösters just a little more than twenty pages to address the same topic. While Kösters provides a fair sketch of the topic, he primarily directs his critical comments toward four authors: Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, a German jurist, Gordon Zahn, an American sociologist and pacifist, Guenter Lewy, an American political scientist, and Olaf Blaschke, a German historian. Ironically, Kösters feels the need to point out that Lewy is “Jewish,” “born in Germany,” and later “emigrated to Palestine” (47). While Kösters presents a reasonable assessment of Lewy’s thesis, not all contributors follow suit.

The editors have assigned the next nine essays to the category, Controversies and Debates. In a rather mistitled essay, “Racist Ideology and Völkisch Religiosity,” Wolfgang Altgeld, professor emeritus of Modern History at the Julius-Maximilian University in Würzburg, rehearses the arguments he made in his earlier study, Katholizismus, Protestantismus, Judentum: Über religiös begründete Gegensätze und nationalreligiöse Ideen in der Geschichte des deutschen Nationalismus (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism: On Religiously-Based Contrasts and National-Religious Ideas in the History of German Nationalism; Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald, 1992). Altgeld finds the reaction of German Catholicism to National Socialism deeply rooted in the centuries-long denominational tensions in Germany between Protestants and Catholics. The overwhelming support of National Socialism by Protestants led Catholics to see Nazism virtually as a “Protestant milieu Party.” This outlook thus enabled Catholic clergy and laity to perceive themselves as living amid a “second Kulturkampf” (81).

Matthias Stickler, director of the Institute for the Study of Higher Education (Institüt für Hochschule) of the Julius-Maximilian University in Würzburg, also develops the idea of Kulturkampf in his contribution, “Collaboration or Ideological Distance? Catholic Church and Nazi State.” According to him, the “traumatic memory of the Kulturkampf” fueled Catholics’ response to Nazism in 1933. In return and to protect the Church, the German Catholic hierarchy supported a Concordat with the Nazi government. Stickler refutes historian Klaus Scholder’s theories regarding the Reich Concordat’s connection with the disbandment of the Center Party and the German bishops 28 March 1933 pronouncement by citing six historical examples. In part, these points highlight the violence against members of Catholic associations and the extensive debate over the political issues behind Concordat articles 31 and 32. For Stickler, the time spent discussing such issues reveals the “precondition of the existence of Catholic political parties” (92). Alongside these arguments, Stickler emphasizes the essential role of the Concordat in permitting the Catholic Church to function in National Socialist Germany. To support his argument, he notes the extensive limitations and persecution the Austrian Catholic Church bore after the Reich Chancery declared the Austrian Concordat of May 1934 defunct.

In “The German Bishops: Pastoral Care and Politics,” Karl-Joseph Hummel, a retired director of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte in Bonn, discusses the problems that arise when attempting to interpret the Church’s response to National Socialism. Chief among these issues is the failure both to contextualize primary sources correctly and to credit the Church for the “resistance of individuals against the Nazi regime” while, at the same time, hold the Church “accountable for the failures of individual bishops” (104). Building upon Michael Kißener’s insights on the organizational weaknesses of the Fulda Bishops’ Conference, Hummel relates how the united Conference met only fourteen times during Hitler’s rule. Outside of these limited meetings, all business had to be coordinated by the “time-consuming” process of postal mail (105). Hummel admits that although pastoral care was of the utmost concern for the bishops, any notion of selfish “milieu egotism,” the caring of one’s milieu alone, should be rejected. To support his claim, he cites the willingness of bishops Petrus Legge of Meißen and Johannes B. Sproll of Rottenburg to suffer at the hands of the state over issues larger than those that were directly linked to Catholicism. The state, for example, found Legge guilty of breaking foreign currency transfer rules and fined him significantly. Sproll refused to support the Anschluss plebiscite and corresponding Reichstag election in April 1938 and had to flee his diocese in fear of persecution. While the example of Sproll possibly supports Hummel’s argument, that of Legge does not. Hummel adds that despite the lack of direct persecution against other German bishops, a significant number of Catholic priests from Germany ended up imprisoned in Dachau, often as “proxies” for their bishops (106). In addition, a few Catholics bishops from occupied countries were not spared internment in Dachau nor were numerous members of their clergy shown mercy. What Hummel does not mention is the ethnonationalistic tensions that existed in Dachau between German Catholic clergy and clergy of other countries, especially from occupied Eastern Europe (on this point, see Adam Kozłowiecki, SJ. Not und Bedrängnis: Als Jesuit in Auschwitz und Dachau. Lagertagebuch, edited by Manfred Deselaers and Bernhard Sill, translated by Herbert Ulrich, Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 2016). Hummel’s larger point is that the bishops did not possess a mandate “for the moral order of society at large or for advocacy of the persecuted” (110). Here he quotes Heinz Hürten, who, before his recent passing, was the doyen of modern German Catholic Church history. In this vein, Hummel speculated, “When there was no involvement, as on 1 April 1933, there may have been other reasons besides ‘silence’, ‘passivity’, ‘naivety’, or ‘egotism’. For example, in early 1933 Faulhaber appeared so convinced that the boycott of Jewish businesses was un-Christian that, in his view, not the official Church but rather every individual Christian should protest against it of his own volition. In Faulhaber’s view, there were far more important contemporary issues for the Church’s leading authorities, such as the schools, the preservation of Catholic associations, or the question of sterilization” (109-110). Ultimately, such argumentation significantly grants the benefit of the doubt to the choices the bishops made under National Socialism

Thomas Brechenmacher, professor of modern history at the University of Potsdam, takes up the broader issue of the Catholic Church and Jews under National Socialism. He rejects what he views as common points of departure for historians covering this topic: the Church “failed morally…by not speaking out and not acting” and, in turn, “violated its own duty to ‘Christian’ love; it failed politically by becoming “blinded by anti-Bolshevism” and viewing “Nazism as a natural ally in the struggle against Soviet communism; the Church was only concerned with itself and therefore could be charged with “milieu egotism”; and lastly, the Church was antisemitic and therefore refused to respond to the plight of Jews (127-128). Reviving the eternal debate among historians about the nature of hatred toward Jews, Brechenmacher rejects any argument that does not make a clear distinction between anti-Judaism, which he describes as “older” and “religiously motivated,” and antisemitism, which he defines as “newer, socioeconomic or racially based” (128). Despite this distinction, he readily admits, “Undoubtedly, there are connections and even a flowing interchange between an older Christian tradition of religiously motivated hostility toward Jews – in other words, anti-Judaism – and the new ‘anti-Semitism’, with its economic and racist argumentation” (130-131). Nevertheless, he ultimately concludes that theologically, anti-Judaism “could have never led to [the] genocide of the Jews. Nor could it have inspired devout Christians to deduce that the Jewish people must be exterminated through murder” (131). Instead, Brechenmacher reasons, only the “older, religious anti-Judaism” helps to explain “the ‘ambivalence’ with which many Catholics…occasionally responded to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews” (131). He cites, for example, the reaction of Bertram and Faulhaber to the 1 April 1933 boycott as an example of the latter. While Brechnmacher’s essay is one of the stronger ones in the volume, overall, he and his colleagues seem surprisingly out of touch with the impact of Holocaust Studies on the writing of the history of church and state under National Socialism. In addition, the citations throughout this volume testify to the narrowness of the contributors’ secondary source material, especially in relation to more recent studies in English on the Church, National Socialism, and the Holocaust.

In “The Catholic Milieu and Nazism,” Christoph Kösters examines the ever-changing milieu of German Catholicism. As reflected in more recent English-language studies, Kösters portrays the milieu as “dynamic” and “not a stagnant system” nor a sealed off “Catholic ghetto” as it is often portrayed (152-153). Though it might appear as anti-democratic and “hostile to secularization,” Kösters argues that it merely “braced itself against the developments of modern society” (153). In the same vein, Kösters rejects secularization theories that portray Catholic conflicts with the Nazi regime as arising from “traditional anti-modernization reflexes and ‘secularization conflicts’ within the Catholic milieu” (153-154). For him, the Church should not be viewed as “a moral authority and institution that focused only on its own survival [and] failed to recognize the ‘signs of the times’, in contrast to the politically resistant socialist milieu.” (155). Instead, Kösters insists that the main conflict was over the “idea of race as a core component of the Nazi worldview” (156). He continues, the Nazis ultimately wanted to “eliminate Christianity and its organizational carrier, which opposed the core idea of race” (157). Truly, this would be amazing if the Church had taken such a stance, but unfortunately extant primary documents do not consistently support such a definitive conclusion in relation to the Church’s conflict with National Socialism.

In “Is ‘Resistance’ not ‘the Right Word’?,” Michael Kißener takes aim at Georg Denzler, emeritus professor of church history at the University of Bamberg, and his work, Widerstand ist nicht das richtige Wort: Katholische Theologen und Priester im Dritten Reich (Resistance is not the Correct Word: Catholics Theologians and Priests in the Third Reich, Zurich: Pendo, 2003). Focusing on the cases of Konrad von Preysing, bishop of Berlin, and Willi Graf, a student and member of the White Rose resistance movement, he concludes, “‘resistance from within the church environment can only be grasped in individual cases” (175). Confirming this stance, he repeats the statement by Hans Maier, which he quoted in his introductory essay to the volume, namely that the Church “as a whole” would not realistically “enter the resistance” (175).

In his second contribution, Thomas Brechenmacher examines Pius XII and World War II. For him, Pope Pius XII engaged in the principle of Inter Arma Caritas or “Christian charity between the weapons” as a departure point for the Vatican’s response to the war. In September 1939, the pope also set up an “Office of Information” whose purpose was to offer “concrete assistance, visits to prisons and concentration camps, deliveries of food, clothing, and medicine” (182). Though taking a public position of neutrality, Pius XII likewise engaged in behind the scenes activities that were far from impartial. Such endeavors included overtures to President Roosevelt in 1938 around the time of the Munich agreement; establishing contact in early 1940 between the resistance in the German military and the British government; and in May 1940, sending telegrams to members of the royalty in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, which denounced invasions by the German army. Though such actions were unknown to most of the world, Brechenmacher does not find Pius XII silent in face of the horrible atrocities of the World War II period. Rather, Brechenmacher argues that Pius XII never deviated from his basic message: “damning the war, urging peace, calling for a new order for state and society based on Christian values, condemning modern pagan totalitarianism, demanding the observance of divine and human rights, entreating and prayer for innocent victims” (196). An important insight, yet, Brechenmacher neglects to admit that Pius XII, despite his Christmas 1942 message, never directly and specifically condemned the persecution and murder of European Jews.

In her contribution, Annette Mertens, a research fellow at the German Federal Archives in Koblenz, examines the choices of German Catholics during the Second World War. At the outset, she states that no book has ever been produced on this subject. However, since this volume’s publication, Oxford University Press has published Thomas Brodie’s study, German Catholicism at War, 1939-1945, which I reviewed in the last issue of CCHQ. Mertens informs the reader that “650 military chaplains” along with 20,000 clerics, monastics, and prospective priests were serving at the front, mostly as military medics” (199). She makes a clear distinction between serving the fatherland – the German nation – and serving the Nazi regime, then assures the reader that the emphasis of the Church hierarchy was on the former. Unfortunately, the bishops were not privy to any outlook that enabled them to approach the war differently than in the past. The Peace League of German Catholics (Friedensbund Deutscher Katholiken) had only been founded in 1917 and banned in 1933 and, according to her, had not yet made enough impact to alter traditional thinking toward war. She concludes, that for the Catholic Church “as a national church, a general summons to martyrdom would have been unthinkable” (204).

In the final essay of the second section, Karl-Joseph Hummel examines how the German Catholic Church dealt with its past under National Socialism. He stresses that the German Catholic bishops were the first group to issue a post-war confession of guilt in August 1945. Yet, he fails to point out that their statement made no reference to the murder of European Jews. For him, doubt over the Church’s role in World War II “came under suspicion” seriously in the 1960s, primarily because it was an institution (237). This is an important insight, but it lacks any contextualization in the tumultuous events of the 1960s that upended many traditional institutions and modes of thinking.

The third section of the book, “Images of History,” contains but one essay, once again by Karl-Joseph Hummel. Entitled, “The Church in Pictures: Historical Photos as a Means of Deception,” the chapter describes the history behind several images that have appeared in more recent books about the Catholic Church under National Socialism. Among these photos is one that the editors at Northern Illinois University Press used for the cover of my book, Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism (2008). The photo features Abbott Alban Schachleiter, OSB, a Benedictine and emeritus abbot of Emmaus Monastery in Prague, giving the Hitler salute to SA men. Hummel not only criticizes the use of this historical photo but also misrepresents the book’s content.

Overall, the contributors to the volume do endeavor to fulfill the goal of the collection’s title by offering an overview of the state of debates and controversies regarding research on the German Catholic Church under National Socialism. Generally, the contributors’ arguments and interpretations are favorable to the Church and the choices of its leaders during this tumultuous time period. A more critical eye would have strengthened the collection. Nevertheless, as with any edited collection, one needs to consider that the chapters are, at times, brief, unnuanced summaries of more detailed arguments. The editors could have also taken steps to strengthen the English language edition by deemphasizing controversies that are long past and by revising chapters to include the depth and breadth of the current historiography (in both German and English) on the Catholic Church in the Third Reich. In addition, as I pointed out above, the translation lacks style and fluency in English, the target language, which makes the volume, at times, challenging to read and not advantageous for use in the classroom. Finally, and more practically, the book, a paperback at that, is priced at over $70.00. In recommending the book, such imperfections cannot be shaken off too easily, if at all.